It’s hard to figure out if Rudolph “Rudy” Wurlitzer’s new novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is newfangled or old hat, a relic or a revolution. In many ways, it feels like it’s being published 40 years too late. Living large and free in the Wild West, altering one’s consciousness and finding enlightenment outside the confines of the culture, these dreams have passed us all by — haven’t they?
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Literature in the 21st century generally seems more concerned with mapping society than with dropping off the edges of it, in making connections rather than severing them. But the thing about revolutions — as the word implies — is that they don’t just happen once, they happen over and over. Punk rock, for example, might be dead in the historical sense, but every day, kids discover the fevers of creative anarchy and the liberation of DIY. Love songs seem trite until someone figures out how to sing them like you’ve never heard them before. A novel like Drop Edge, with its gorgeously old-fashioned cover, published by the young husband-and-wife owners of Two Dollar Radio, might not take the culture by storm, but there’s a bawdy, lunatic thrill to the tale that still seems somehow radical. It’s the kind of book someone will stick in a back pocket before heading out on the trail into the unknown.
Wurlitzer has always been interested in what he calls “journeys to nowhere.” His 1969 debut novel, Nog, followed the aimless wanderings of a nameless character through a surreal and absurd American landscape. The 1971 cult-classic film Two-Lane Blacktop, written by Wurlitzer (and directed by maverick Monte Hellman), begins with a promising Hollywood premise: Two hot-rod fanatics race their cars cross-country, with their pink slips as the wager. But the plot soon goes sideways and never comes back. In the film’s infamous last shot, “the driver” (played by a laconic James Taylor) is drag-racing his ’55 Chevy when suddenly the sound disappears, the film blackens and cracks, and the image burns into nothingness.
Four novels and dozens of screenplays later, Wurlitzer still hasn’t given up on his peculiar twin obsession with constant movement and never arriving. The Drop Edge of Yonder is a psychedelic Western, a tripped-out blend of Hollywood convention and ecstatic mysticism: poker games in old saloons, shootouts, prison breaks and lynch mobs mingle with healing rituals, midget shamans, vision quests and an underlying emphasis on the Buddhist concepts of death, rebirth and the wheel of suffering. The novel’s main character, Zebulon Shook, is a rugged mountain trapper who wanders out toward San Francisco’s gold rush via the Panama Canal, chases after his Abyssinian whore lover, becomes a notorious outlaw and even dies a few times along the way. As the novel opens, Zebulon is nearly axed to death by a horse thief named Lobo Bill while he’s in flagrante with a half-breed Indian on a tabletop, and from then on, the novel is a deluge of action and movement, a parade of “bad hombres and doins.”
Still, despite all the adventure, love and cholera, the novel feels weirdly static, like an eerie repetitive dream. The man playing the honky-tonk piano in the first saloon is the same man playing in the last one, and when the cards in the poker hand are turned over, the result is always the same: a queen-high straight flush of hearts beating a full house. You feel two myths of freedom colliding: the Western myth of finding freedom somewhere out in “the big empty” of the frontier, and the Eastern belief that enlightenment comes only after divorcing oneself from physical reality and desire. The result is a bawdy, rambunctious, exhilarating book that is simultaneously claustrophobic and stifling. It’s fun to read, but the novel subversively suggests that a true triumph would be to stop reading altogether, to give up on your need for narrative catharsis. In the end, Zebulon goes nowhere, and the last line describes his photograph fading to nothingness, a clear throwback to Blacktop. It’s remarkable how long Wurlitzer has been dedicated to his vision of nothingness and Nirvana, and it’s more remarkable that the idea still packs a kick. Perhaps it’s a story that needs to be told again and again.
In Manhattan over coffee, Wurlitzer talked about his travels, his adventures in Hollywood and his recommended psychedelics.
L.A. WEEKLY: You’re from the Wurlitzer family — why didn’t you go into the music business?
RUDY WURLITZER: Luckily the whole Wurlitzer empire had collapsed, and my father had become a violin and cello dealer. I was the end of the line, and my father never imposed what I should do. He was always curious about how weird I was, and he wanted to see what I would do.
How did you become a writer?
One summer, when I was 17, I got a job on an oil tanker that went from Philadelphia to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait. And on that trip I started to write. Then, after a couple years at Columbia University, I took a spring vacation down to Cuba, just after Castro had arrived, and the whole thing was completely exuberant, so I stayed on, fell in love with a Cuban, uh, woman of the night, let’s say. By the time I finally got back to Columbia, my career as an academic was in real jeopardy. So I went into the Army for a few years, went up to Hudson Bay to test cold-weather equipment, and when I was there, I wrote even more because it was so isolating. Then I hung out in Paris for a long time, drifted down to Majorca, where I sort of became secretary to Robert Graves, the poet, and he taught me how to write short sentences. Then I published a story in the Paris Review,which turned out to be the first chapter of Nog, and this editor at Random House liked it a lot and signed me up. Those were the days when Random House was open to publishing literature.
Nog is a very strange book. It was praised by Thomas Pynchon (“Another sign that the novel of bullshit is dead”) but also left a lot of people bewildered.
One of the first reviews I got, the first line was: “Wurlitzer is a name that means music to millions, and literature obviously to none.” [Laughs.] Still, if it had said the opposite, it would have been worse for me, because I would have gone around with a swollen head, but instead I went around with almost no head.
Were you part of a group, people who were your comrades in arms? Did you have artist friends?
I’ve never felt that I was a comrade in arms or self-consciously part of any group, except for everyone with a sense of alienation. Which is a big group. Artist friends? Sure. One of my oldest friends is Philip Glass. [In 2000, they collaborated on an opera version of Kafka’s “The Penal Colony.”] We met back in Paris — we were lusting after the same girl.
We both lost.
How did you go from traveling the world and writing this bizarre novel to writing screenplays in Hollywood?
Monte Hellman read Nog and thought, “Wow, this guy is crazy enough to write the film I want to do.” I came out to L.A. They got me a room and hotel. I didn’t know a car from a cow, but I hung out with all these car freaks and totally rewrote the script for Two-Lane Blacktop. And it was great because, in the best sense of the word, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know the rules of writing scripts. So it became a very existential process. And it was fun. I thought, Man, what is everyone complaining about?
I know film buffs who feel like it’s the greatest counterculture film, above even Easy Rider.
It was a wonderful mistake, that film. The thing about Two-Lane Blacktop that is interesting for people is that it’s a journey to nowhere, it’s for its own sake. We just filmed these little autonomous moments with nonactors, so you didn’t have the clichés of acting. In fact, most of them were totally somnambulant ... due to various influences. After I wrote the script, Esquire read it, and they published it on the cover, saying, “The Film of the Year,” and after the film came out, they called it “The Flop of the Year.” People didn’t get it. The mass audience was going to a film about cars, for races, for winners and losers, and in this film there are no winners or losers, there is no duality in that way.
How did the ending come about?
We didn’t know how to end it. [Laughs.] We were both, like, how are we going to end this fucking thing? And somebody said, “Let’s torch it up, burn the film.” It seemed appropriate.
Your next film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, was also a commercial flop, and has also become a cult classic. What was it like working with Sam Peckinpah?
Peckinpah was great, one of a kind. A real character of the West. He was scary. He would take out a knife and throw it at the wall behind your head. He had this whole coterie of old-time character actors that were on most of his films, and it was like this demented family. So if you’re not terrified, you love a guy like that.
I read that Bob Dylan (who wrote the film score and played a small role) loved Peckinpah, and followed him around the set like a puppy. How did Dylan get involved?
I knew Dylan a little, and he came to see me when he heard that I was doing a film on Billy the Kid, and he said, “Oh, man, you know what? I always thought I was the reincarnation of Billy the Kid.” I said, “I’m sure you are.” And he said, “Well, if there’s any way I can be in it ...” So then we went down and met Sam, and he turned to Bob and said, “You know, I’m a big fan of Roger Miller.” I thought, “Oh, no, this might be it.” But Bob fell in love. He was a confrontationist too, so he understood.
It seems like Hollywood was such a different animal then.
Totally different. There was always a certain war with the powers that be, but it was fun. ... It was like the outlaws against the big landowner. My connections to Hollywood in those days were all very personal and spontaneous and pretty much off the margins of the studio system. It felt very free to me. I thought, “Wow, this is a way I can have a livelihood and still write my wacky novels.” And for a while, that was true. Then it changed. Now films are worked out in a room before the shooting starts, with about five sales people and three studio people and a director terrified that he’s gonna make a flop. And the poor scribbler is just trying to survive, saying, “Yeah, whatever you want!” A lot of those old directors would have trouble getting work now — guys like Peckinpah, Hal Ashby.
Are you done with screenwriting?
I’m pretty much off the celluloid trail, I hope. But you never know. If somebody calls me up and says, “Hey, saddle up big guy ...”
You talk about Two-Lane Blacktop being a journey to nowhere, and that seems to be the theme in Drop Edge, too.
I’ve always been obsessed with episodic journeys, and trying to get lost in the presence of the journey. Each time you take a journey, you separate from what you’ve left behind, and you hopefully burn out all the false attachments and beliefs about who you are, the “me.” When you’ve dissolved all the conditions that you’ve been born into, it’s often very brutal, but that’s what it means to be free.
Your novel fuses these Eastern concepts with our Western notions of freedom: the Old West, outlaws, living as an individual.
Sure, you could say the frontier is a metaphor for freedom. It’s about all these wackos who rushed out there for the gold rush, and how that fueled the whole capitalist system. It’s about greed, desire, ambition, and in this sense, Drop Edge is about how the big empty was filled up and what people did with that emptiness, and how they used and arranged it to feel safe, or make their coin or whatever.
That transition sounds similar to what you were saying about L.A.’s transition from a more wild and woolly place to —
Los Angeles went from being a frontier town to becoming a monocultural corporate town. I see that in America as a whole. I see it everywhere.
Is there still a role for your kind of writing in today’s literary world? Is there even a counterculture at all anymore?
Not like the ’60s, but I think there will be, as the noose tightens, as people become more and more stretched and afraid, and the structure becomes more dysfunctional. There will have to be some kind of alternative, or no one will survive. My heart goes out to young writers — it’s a very perilous path. Look at all the writers around who are in desperate straits, psychologically, emotionally, financially. Magazines, newspapers are going down. Film business has gone into TV land in terms of writing. Novels are on their way out.
Your book is being published by Two Dollar Radio, a small start-up printing press.
They have purity, they love books, they have no idea what they’re doing [laughs], and I’ve never had so much fun! I didn’t need a big advance, and the thought of going up to 57th Street and having one of these publishing lunches — I couldn’t do it anymore. I just thought, Fuck it, I’ll try something different. It’s like the old Grove Press or the Barney Rosset days in Paris. Like-minded common-ground people, and they’re not talking about sales, they’re talking about books. How strange. How radical. It’s like this little secret cabal of book lovers. Soon they’ll have us all arrested.
What was your writing process with Drop Edge?
Well, you write because you’re exploring, you’re trying to figure out what you think, you’re trying to articulate where your shadow world lives, and what your journey is. Life is not a conceptual arrangement, life is movement. Writing is a kind of ritual for me, and you don’t know where it’s going to go, or if anyone’s going to read it, or even if it’s going to get published. You gotta give yourself permission to get lost. If you’re not lost, you can’t be found. If you don’t have a wound, you can’t transcend the wound with a healing.
Cycles of injury and health, loss and discovery are themes in Drop Edge.
Yeah, be grateful for your wounds. They’re a catalyst toward something further. Unless you get dead.
There’s a particularly intense healing ceremony in the novel: “The medicine roared through their bodies in noxious waves until they sank on all fours, vomiting and heaving ... [they] wept and wept, haunted by the ... approaching shadow of ... death.” It reminded me of a description of that Amazonian drug Yage.
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Ah, yes. Yage. Yeah, you should try that. You’ll like it. William Burroughs liked Yage a lot. I recommend it. If you’re lucky, it takes you to the edge of yourself. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been on that journey.
I was talking to a friend of mine about Yage, and he said, “Yeah, you can get that on eBay.”
Well, that’s the new world.
THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER | By RUDOLPH WURLITZER | Two Dollar Radio | 275 pages | $15 softcover